Life on the intensive care baby unit
The intensive care baby unit has two nurseries, the hot and the cool, although to any healthy adult these are both rather too warm for comfort. Very premature or sick babies come to the hot nursery for intensive care. The nursery can take up to ten babies but in such a case is very crowded. The babies lie on bed platforms just above adult waist height. These platforms may be surrounded by a perspex fence to prevent the baby from slipping out or they may be covered by a perspex incubator. An ultra-violet light may shine on it to counteract jaundice.
Surrounding each bed is a jumble of equipment joined to the baby by several leads. These are attached to the babies' arms, legs, and trunks. Sometimes there are taped to their arms and legs tubes which can be quite heavy and which presumably give the baby quite an odd sensation. The babies are often on ventilators which are tied to their mouths to make them breathe, and they are mostly fed intravenously. There are bright overhead lights which occasionally get turned down.
The babies graduate from this nursery to the cool nursery when they no longer need such intensive care but do need special care. Here the babies may still be being fed naso-gastrically but the mothers will be beginning to try to breast or bottle feed them. Many mothers heroically express their milk for weeks or even months, so that their own milk can be put down the tube, and also to keep the flow going so that when they have the chance to breast feed their milk is still there. In this nursery the babies mostly lie in little perspex cots, where they look cosier and less vulnerable. It is easier for their parents to take them out although the nurses may still have to help them manoeuvre the leads. The mothers gradually take over the care of their babies when they visit until each baby is ready to go home. After the birth the mother will be able to stay on the postnatal ward for a few days but she will then have to go home and visit her baby in the NICU. The unit is open twenty-four hours a day to parents but it is very traumatic for mothers to have to leave the hospital without their babies. There is on the unit a small room used by the mothers to sit and drink coffee (and where I see parents) where mothers can sleep overnight. All mothers "room in" for at least one night before taking their babies home. If a baby is very ill, the parents often camp out in this room, but that denies the facility to other parents.
The atmosphere of the unit is quite friendly but also pressurised. The doctors are overworked and often tired, nursing frequently suffers from understaffing. The hi-tech equipment is rather daunting and the flashing lights and alarm signals can be very unnerving. On the whole the atmosphere of the cool nursery is much more relaxed, but even here there may be a baby who is no longer in danger but who is chronically sick or very handicapped, or a baby who is no longer in crisis but is unable to do without a trickle of oxygen, where the mother is worn out with the daily visiting and frequently torn apart by her commitment here and her commitments at home.